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Friday, February 20, 2009

Game Play: Texas Holdem (iPhone)

Chris seemed to have caught on to the fact that I was fishing him right before going all in, which is a shame since I had two aces and nearly took all his money. Holly was doomed before the river was down, but I don't think she knew it until then.

What, what the hell am I talking about? I hate Texas Holdem. It's poker for the short attention span crowd, a hypercommercial sport for people who like watching this kind of stuff on tournaments. For people who want to go to poker tournaments without actually being, like, professional gamblers.

Which is I guess why this works for me - trapped on the iPhone, it is impossible to take this game too seriously. All-in for four thousand in Paris on a pair of deuces? Ah, why not. Nobody will see your shame and you can make all that virtual money back in a half hour anyway.

There's also the fact that this game is an Apple title, pretty much a launch app for the iPhone and a textbook example of doing things right on the device. Store state when the app closes for any reason? Check. Horizontal and vertical views? Check? Designed specifically for each view, with a different purpose? Check. Multiple hints on using the touch controls correctly? Check. It's a very complete package. WiFi multiplayer? Check (LAN only, though).

The practically Sega CD memory invoking video players might make the aging gamer giggle a little, but they actually play well in the game. Bottom line is that its a solid poker title, even if you aren't the biggest poker fan.

TV Watch: Lost, 316

This was a weird episode. I can't really say it was bad, it was good, but I did enjoy it. Not as much as last week, but it was fun.

It was, however, an odd combination of explaining things and obviously not explaining thing. Hawkings gave us a brilliant backstory into DHARMA, even dropping the interesting clue that DHARMA had to find the island themselves. I had made the assumption that DHARMA was created by islanders who had left the island and returned, but apparently not. Also, we know more about how the island is hard to find, that it keeps moving, etc.

Course, what remains to be seen is if any of the backstory into how Sayid or Hurley got on the plane, or what happened to Ben or (more importantly) what happened to Aaron will get told. My guess is yes, and they'll comprise the other section of "off island" stories for the season, especially since I don't see how they could possibly leave the fate of our Little Prince in question.

So if we focus purely on this episode, it did a few things I've always asked from Lost. It explained things, it kept the plot well focused and it didn't jump back and forth between meaningless plotlines. It still didn't make much sense, mind you, and opens a long list of follow up questions - but we have to just let Lost be Lost sometimes.

So kind of a bridge episode, but possibly the best bridge episode.

Game Play: Noby Noby Boy (PSN)

I'm not even sure where to start on this one.

I'm making an assumption that I'm not the only person who downloaded Noby Noby Boy, the latest from Keita Takahashi, creator of one my all time favorites, Katamari Damarcy and thought what the hell?.

But I need to specific here. Because I thought what the hell when I first saw a video for Katamari too, and a bit when I played it the first time. The difference there is that I giggled a bit when I did it. Noby Noby Boy is just a mess of ideas with no giggle factor at all.

OK, when you fart out a sheep, you might giggle. But it won't sustain you because you don't really know why you're farting sheep, or eating sheep or doing much of anything. After going through what might be possibly the worst designed tutorial mode in the history of gaming, one so bad that the game might as well just dump you into the game sans instructions, you're left in a small playing field with objects and animals. Near as I can tell, you're supposed to stretch your "Boy" to be long enough to eat certain objects. This is so you can. Um. Eat more objects? Stretch some more?

The fairy who insisted you guess through half the controls in the first place says the game is about experimenting and exploring. Except, there isn't much to explore or experiment with. The game area is incredibly small, there's a limited number of things to interact with and none of it seems to do anything significant.

I go back to the difference between Flower and Linger In Shadows. The former is a smooth, almost soothing experience that doesn't need to call out the game mechanics at work here. The latter is a confusing mess of controls as a poor substitute for real interactivity.

Noby seems to fall somewhere in between, but with none of the artistic flair of either. It's not really a game, it's someone's demo project. It's Keita's experiment, and the only reason Sony sold it is because bloggers could put Katamari into a sentence with PSN for a change. The only reason I can see anyone playing it is for idle curiosity, and I can't imagine that would be for long.

I can understand and even respect someone not wanting to produce the same game over and over - but just give us the version of Katamari the PlayStation 3 deserves, and not this crap.

Add on top of all this the fact the controls are pretty lousy. To zoom in and out, for instance, you hold down the shoulder button and tilt the controller. Which might work OK, except it seems impossible to control accurately and you end up without any fine grain view to the game.

You will zoom any time you want to view the in game menu, which is produced in a series of clouds from the chimney on your house that is shaped like a head that spouts bubbles out of its nose.

I kid you not.

Even at the $5 asking price, I can't recommend this one.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Edge Of Controversy

I almost commented on this before, except I find it rather hard to give a damn.

Edge gave Killzone 2 a 7 out of 10. Which honestly, I have no idea if that's a valid score or not - I have not played the game nor have I tried the demo (and don't me started on gamers acting like they're an authority on a game based on a demo). The review resulted in a flame war of hilarious proportions, recommended reading if there ever was such a thing for the genre.

Whether the game is good or not, or justifies the score, can't really say. But the review itself sucked. Even if it is an honest opinion of the game, it just isn't very good writing.

Here is an example:

It shares that laudable desire to see you through a level without fuss,‭ ‬hindered only by the constant fear of a fatal mistake.‭ ‬A gun game in the truest sense,‭ ‬its bullets and ragdolls offer a literal take on the‭ ‘‬theatre‭’ ‬of war,‭ ‬a rare pleasure since GoldenEye.‭

Right. A rare treat except GoldenEye. If you haven't played the umpteen military based shooters created since Counter-Strike went commercial, the vast majority of them utilizing increasingly more sophisticated ragdoll tech. A paragraph like this makes me think the writer (although technically here it is writers - it apparently took the entire Edge staff to produce this gem) just wants the reader to know: I played GoldenEye.

Which especially sad if that is supposed to count as old school in some way.

Example 2:

The fraught team dynamic is gone,‭ ‬as is Killzone’s neat trick of having a Helghast operative fighting by your side.‭ ‬The dialogue is functional,‭ ‬the motives obvious.‭ ‬And too much time is given to Rico Velasquez,‭ ‬the ISA’s version of the Cole Train.‭ ‬He’s rotten company,‭ ‬so foul-mouthed that you’ll wonder when gaming will overcome its‭ ‬latest obsession.‭

The "neat trick" was really "just another character", of course. And, what is exactly is supposd to be "gaming's latest obsession"? Foul-mouthed main characters? Maybe it's a "games that like to be more like Gears Of War's latest obsession," or "there was a lot of swearing in GTA IV, so we can do it too" kind of thing - but it's not like Flower features a cursing petal or anything. As obsessions go, there's nothing in that quote that really makes sense to gaming in general.

And the problem here is that Edge seems to be going out of its way to prove Killzone 2 to be banal. I'm half-surprised they didn't complain about the use of guns in a game.

Leading us to my favorite part:

Sentry bots‭? ‬You must be joking.‭ ‬If you can’t think for yourself after so many millions of dollars have‭ ‬been spent,‭ ‬surely it’s common courtesy to make your clich├ęs interesting.‭ ‬Not here,‭ ‬it seems,‭ ‬where half the chapters feel like multiplayer maps full of bots and random waypoints.

Can someone tell me what exactly is wrong with sentry bots? Fallout 3 had a decent number of them, and other than their tendency to shoot large rockets in my direction - I never thought to myself, "wow, how unimaginative." I mean how about "another alien race based vaguely on insects" (Gears Of War), or "another alien race based vaguely on vampires/zombies/goth monsters" (Uh, also, Gears Of War), or how about a "men in the future will be roided out soldiers in large metal suits, using equipment with randomly placed LED lights" (You get the point).

And I'm not suggesting that Gears Of War was cliche or unimaginative, I'm just saying that the shooter genre has so many building blocks that get swapped around, it isn't very useful to point something like, "they used robots" as a part of a critique. Does Edge knock every game for using a cinematic that evokes a scene from a Valve game? No? Then shut the hell up.

Sentry bots. Edge goes on about sentry bots, but for the actual multiplayer portion of the game, we get:

In fact,‭ ‬few story-driven games have been so much more dramatic in multiplayer.‭ Freed of its narrative shackles,‭ ‬Killzone‭ ‬2‭’‬s deathmatches openly celebrate the tight controls‭ (‬jumping now included‭)‬,‭ ‬hand-made environments and technical beauty of a‭ ‬game that is,‭ ‬almost exclusively,‭ ‬about popping someone in the face or blowing them to kingdom come.‭

Separate development of the multiplayer modes has paid dividends,‭ ‬the badge and perks systems adding distinctive RPG flavour to a uniquely hardcore team-based experience.‭

And that's it. Which tells me nothing new that I didn't already know from the dozen Killzone 2 previews out there. I know someone who writes movie reviews not by watching movies, but by reading other reviews and paraphrasing them.

I'm not suggesting that Edge did that. But if they did, it would possibly would have been a better review.

I did like this portion:
Smart and nimble,‭ ‬the Helghast like nothing more than someone foolish enough to hide.‭ ‬This intimate,‭ ‬sizzling combat feels a lot like that of FEAR,‭ ‬but is actually more like another game of the time:‭ ‬Criterion’s Black.

Mostly because I've played FEAR and I've played Black, and so I understand what is being said. Oddly though, it's about the only part of the review well written and really, really made me want to play the game.

(Oh, and for anyone wanting to respond with some nitpicky response pointing out a grammar or spelling error, so how is it I get to be all high and mighty about writing - the answer is simple. I don't get paid for this. They do. And also, bite me.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Errata: Battlestar Galactica's Report Card

I realized last night that I left Galactica off my list of scifi students yesterday. Which is pretty bad since I think it is hands down my favorite show so far this season. I often write these longer posts throughout the day, and these days my brain gets away from me.

I'll go be in the brig now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Things That Happen On Lost

Via Graphjam Thanks, jvm.

TV Watch: Sci Fi Report Card

I don't get a chance to write weekly on every show out there, as I am only mortal and have an actual job as well. As a way to recap across the board, here's how the current crop of science fiction is doing on our books:

Let's start with the problem child. Heroes and I have generally had a tumultuous relationship, but the show usually delivered the goods by season's end. Problem is that this season I'm just running out of caring. Is Claire annoyed with one of her fathers? Don't care. Has Parker picked up some new ability because apparently reading minds makes for really boring TV? Don't care. Does Hiro have any powers this week? Don't know. And don't care.

Heroes lacks any central theme in my eyes. It's not a show about salvation, or responsibility or even outright power. It doesn't really seem to be a show about anything except what random happenstance occurs on a group of people for a season. Were it not for the flaming bolts and flying around, this show could be Seinfeld. It needs to get rooted, clear out some weeds and produce a decent storyline. Grade: D+

Fringe has me pretty well hooked at this point. I like the characters, the back plot is interesting and the monsters of the week well handled. That said, the show seems poised for trouble. It could follow so many bad examples and end up in the weeds in just no time flat. Incongruities, too many unexplained events, drawing out plots for seasons on end - all mistakes made by prior star pupils.

For now, I'll remain optimistic - if not just to wait to hear what random insanity comes from Walter next. It's a smart, well acted show that pulls enough material from past shows while remaining fresh and unique on its own. There's a few specific quibbles - like just how weird Massive Dynamic can be without reminding me of an episode of FLCL, but nothing serious. Grade: A-

Speaking of incongruities, too many unexplained events, drawing out plots for seasons on end - Lost has managed them all. The saving grace of it all at this point is the characters, which the writers still haven't forgotten are the heart of the show even if they've struggled keeping focus (perhaps they should tutor Heroes after class). This season feels like it is cleaning up, tightening up and straightening up the overall format - but there is no doubt that the episode neither feel as strong nor deliver the same punch as the first couple of seasons. The show isn't as fun as it was, feels less like a puzzle and has lost a lot of its flair - but there is an effort here and that effort is showing this season.

Lost is no longer an overachiever, but pretty certain it will graduate. Grade: B

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
My usually thumping point for Terminator has been - who wouldn't want to watch a show with Summer Glau as a cyborg? Fair to say that while the logic is sound, that's not enough to make a show last for more than a few episodes. So why should you watch this outside of a robotic River Tam?

First - Lena Headey, who is downright amazing as Sarah. At its center, the show is about the confused and complicated life of some refugees of time - and Lena embodies that confusion in her character. She morphs from bumbling mom to roadside warrior in nanoseconds. Secondly, the show is trying to be less of a B-movie TV show and more of a character study on living life as a refugee. There's less action, more dialogue and it works quite well.

What the show lacks right now is that moment where an episode just feels perfectly galvanized. The show has this wandering feel to it, which isn't entirely bad - but not entirely good. I used to tell people if they were interested in Lost - at least watch the first Locke episode. If you don't like that, you'll hate the show. Terminator doesn't have that working example yet. Grade: B+

As I said in my post on the premiere, I don't think it is fair to judge Dollhouse until a few episodes into the season. I think the show is off to a robust start and I have a lot of confidence that Joss will mine the premise for what its worth. Still, all we have to go from is setup and groundwork. We'll check back in a couple months to see where it is. Grade: New Student

Battlestar Galactica
For this season, Galactica is my star pupil. This season has been off the charts good, evoking all the tidbits of the first season that drew viewers in the first place. Military SF, mystery and a pervasive sense of dread emanate from these episodes. The coup episodes are possibly my favorite in the series history and even with that storyline resolved, I'm hooked in for more.

I can't say that I'm sorry to see the show go, simply because I think the plot needs to have a definite ending. It does feel like the ending will shore up all the little elements we've been shown through the seasons and probably end with a bang (my guess right now - a literal one).Grade: A+.

Atlantis, Sanctuary, etc.
At some point I guess we should catch back up with Atlantis to see how it ended - it looks like we left off with a couple episodes to go. We didn't have a lot of interest left in the show, especially when it got cancelled and the content feeling like it was getting stuck in the mire all season long.

As for Sanctuary, I honestly can't even get past Amanda Tapping's awful rendition of an accent to even get through a preview, much less a whole episode. And yes, I know Tapping is British born and all, but from what I read she's upping the ante on it to be "technically accurate."

Don't know. Don't care. Don't watch. Grade: Absent from class

Movie Watch: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Curious Case does quite a few things quite well, but there's nothing earth shatteringly good about the film. It is a solid enough period romance with a Forrest Gump feel to it, but obviously handled in a very serious and somber way.

The movie's handling of the main twist, that Benjamin is "headed the other way" as it is put in-film, allows the story to flesh out elements of it without turning the movie into a freak show. Characters are either aware of the scenario or completely oblivious. While this saves the movie from rapidly degenerating into an X-Files episode, it also removes the audience a bit from what is really happening to the main character. Also, there's an odd lack of conflict from most of the plot until nearly the very end.

The film is shot quite well, however, and the makeup and effects used on Brad Pitt are especially impressive. For the genre, I'd say this is an easy recommendation but I wouldn't feel like you have to watch it just because of the Oscar buzz.